Haley bashes Trump on Russia as she seeks to gain ground in GOP primary

NORTH AUGUSTA, South Carolina — Nikki Haley has found her closing message in South Carolina: Russia, Russia, Russia.

In interviews, on social media and on the stump, the former U.N. ambassador has repeatedly seized on the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to launch a fusillade against former President Donald Trump.

Haley jabbed Trump for taking three days to acknowledge Navalny’s death and then for failing to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for it. She’s cast her former boss as “weak in the knees” when it comes to Russia. She’s slammed him for criticizing NATO at a time when many in the West see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a threat to European stability. And at a Wednesday afternoon rally on the Georgia border, Haley unleashed some of her most pointed criticism yet of Trump’s relationship with Putin.

“Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents,” Haley said. “Trump sided with an evil man over our allies who stood with us on 9/11. Think about what that told them.”

Haley is turning Russia — and Putin, specifically — into a cudgel at a crucial moment in the Republican presidential primary. She’s running far behind Trump. And the former South Carolina governor is poised to get blown out in her home state’s primary on Saturday.

Her focus on Russia, in addition to providing a new line of attack on Trump, has created a platform for the former U.N. ambassador to again flex the foreign policy chops she has long invoked as a way to stand out in the race. And she has used it to help boost her rationale for staying in the race. Earlier this week, while insisting that she will not drop out of the primary, Haley said, “People have a right to have their voices heard. And they deserve a real choice, not a Soviet-style election where there’s only one candidate, and he gets 99 percent of the vote.”

Rob Godfrey, a former communications director for Haley who is unaffiliated in the primary, said it’s “not surprising to see Nikki lean into one of her strengths” at this juncture — and to draw contrast with her former boss.

“Whether that’s an issue that resonates with voters, and voters in a Republican primary in South Carolina, is an open question,” Godfrey said. “But it’s nevertheless an important one. And of course, this is not just a campaign in South Carolina.”

In some ways, Haley’s offensive may prove more enduring than the primary. In her broadsides against Trump on Russia, Haley is taking up a key criticism leveled against him by some of his fiercest opponents, from Hillary Clinton and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and, of course, President Joe Biden. And she’s blasting away at vulnerability that could significantly dog Trump in the general election.

Gasps rippled through the audience when Haley reminded a crowd at a waterfront park in Beaufort on Wednesday of Trump’s remarks that he would “encourage” Russia to attack any NATO member countries that don’t meet financial obligations.

“The hell with him!” one man in the crowd cried out, waving a “Pick Nikki” sign against the backdrop of a blazingly orange setting sun.

Navalny’s death — and Haley’s effort to capitalize on Trump’s response — has become a flashpoint in the late stages of the South Carolina campaign, as Haley searches for ways to close a wide polling deficit in her home state as early voting gets underway.

Trump this week doubled down on his previous comments on Navalny, likening himself to the Russian opposition leader. On Tuesday, amid widespread outrage over Navalny’s death, Trump called the $355 million judgment against him in a New York civil trial “a form of Navalny” and said the myriad indictments he faces are “all because of the fact that I’m in politics.”

Haley, in apparent response, ripped Trump for spewing what she called “the kind of garbage you hear from liberals” in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Foreign affairs have always featured prominently in the former U.N. ambassador’s stump speeches, from her calls to stand firm with Ukraine and Israel to her warnings about threats China, Iran and Russia pose to U.S. national security.

But in the days since Navalny’s death, Haley has escalated her warnings about foreign powers — and turned those warnings into attacks on Trump. She has referenced Trump’s past praise for Putin and seized on his refusal to condemn the Russian president for his political rival’s death. On the campaign trail, she has repeatedly accused Trump of aligning himself with a “thug” and a “dictator” who has “made no bones about wanting to destroy America.”

But Haley’s emphasis on Russia could prove an ineffective weapon. In a Suffolk University/USA TODAY survey of 500 likely South Carolina voters released this week, less than 5 percent of respondents said foreign policy was the most important issue facing the country, far behind issues such as immigration and the economy.

Still, at a precarious moment in geopolitics, Haley’s stances on foreign affairs appear to be drawing at least some Republican voters to her.

The GOP has become “too isolationist … that’s what Trump has brought back into the party, that we shouldn’t get involved in Ukraine, we shouldn’t get involved as much in Europe, and I don’t like it,” Kurt Holmes, a Republican from North Augusta, said as he sat in the back row of her event in a municipal building here.

“Nikki Haley,” he said, “is definitely a person who will not allow that to happen.”

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